State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, is another number one seed in the Tournament of Books, and it deserves it’s high ranking. It is the story of Marina, a medical researcher working for a large pharmaceutical company, sent into the Amazon in search of her former medical school mentor to determine the progress they have made researching a fertility drug. She is also trying to find out what happened to her office mate, who apparently died on a similar mission after months in the jungle.
It’s a great book; well written, surprising, and suspenseful. The way the jungle is described through the eyes of Mariana perfectly captures the wild other-worldliness of it, as well as her gradual understanding and acceptance of the situation she is in. The lead scientist on the project (and Marina’s former mentor), Dr. Annika Swenson, is also a great character, especially seen through the eyes of Marina. Dr. Swenson is one of those people that always seem to have a perfect handle on every situation; seeing several steps ahead and knowing exactly what to say in order to both resolve the issue and make one feel foolish for not seeing it.
The book faces off against one of my favorites, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. It will be very interesting to read judge Wil Wheaton’s logic when he makes his decision. It’s close enough in my mind that I can’t make up my mind at this moment.
It was -25°F at the house, but the sun was out and I couldn’t resist going for a ski. Goldstream Creek has been going through an extended period of overflowing for most of the winter, so I wasn’t sure how far I would get. I skied on the Valley trail toward Ballaine Road, turned down the hill at the DNR pond, and skied west (sort of!) on the Creek until it met up with the power line trail. I took that trail east until connecting to the trail up the hill to Shadow Lane. Then down Shadow to the edge of our Miller Hill property and back down to the Valley trail. It was 3.5 miles, and polar wax was just about right. The sun, snow and trail conditions made it a great ski. I’m sure the two people skijouring with their dogs and the musher I crossed paths with will agree.
Here’s a panorama taken from a location close to the photo to the right (click on either for a larger version).
Another Tournament of Books pick, The Devil All the Time meets the last book I read (Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending) in the first round. They are such totally different books that I wonder how judge Emma Straub can possibly decide between the two. Devil is about hard lives and evil, taking place on the other side of the tracks in towns in Ohio and West Virginia. There aren’t any characters in the book that you’d want to meet, and if you did, you’d either need to be carrying a firearm to survive the encounter, or would want a shower after the experience. One reviewer commented that reading this book was like “wrestling a grizzly.” I know someone that has actually done that (not her choice), and I doubt if she would equate the two.
In many ways, it reminded me of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, except without the hero protagonist trying to make the world a better place by murdering Oswald. The brutality and poverty also recalled Matthiessen’s fantastic Shadow Country.
It’s an excellent book, if you can handle it. It isn’t one of my picks to win the tournament, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if it did. How it fares against Ending in round one probably depends on how much the judge hated the ending of Barnes’s book compared with feeling beaten down by Devil. I think I’d pick Devil, but it’s close.
Finished Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize winning, and number one Tournament of Books seeded, The Sense of an Ending in what was essentially one sitting today. It is split into two parts, a reflection on growing up from a man past middle age, and then a reanalysis of that life after a bequest from the mother of a former lover. The first part is brilliant, funny, and full of insight into growing up as a man a little too afraid of consequences:
Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival?
I can’t remember where I came across the idea, but what if we were to live our lives without fear? This is something I have thought a lot about since then, and whether I will have regrets over not choosing the hard road at one time or another because I was afraid of the consequences. Barnes’s narrator clearly has these regrets.
The second part was also very interesting and dealt a lot with another subject I’ve thought about (and which becomes the subject of Open City in similar ways to this book): how the re-telling of our own story, even to ourselves, is often dramatically different than the way other people experienced shared sections of it, and that even when we keep letters, photographs, journal entries and other “objective” records of our lives, our own history has no definitive plot line.
Later … later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches.
I didn’t like the ending as much as the rest of the book, and based on reviews I’ve seen, many others had the same problem. But there’s a lot of great stuff in this book, and I recommend it. It falls into the “Good, worth your time” category of my last post.
One other note on memory and history: Last week I mentioned to a coworker that I’d never read any Julian Barnes. Turns out I read Metroland in January 1999 and wouldn’t have known it except for the meticulous records I’ve kept, chronicling that part of my history.
The 2012 Tournament of Books judges, books, and pairings have been announced. ToB is my favorite “best-of” books contest, and I'm very much looking forward to the contest itself, starting in March. Meantime, I can attempt to read some of the 2011 books I haven't yet read. I was in the middle of David Foster Wallace’s Pale King, but since that isn't on the list, I'll put it aside for the second time.
Here’s the list. Click the ToB link above to see the judges and pairings (checkmarks indicate what I’ve read, updated to the present):
- Nathacha Appanah, The Last Brother ✓
- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending ✓
- Teju Cole, Open City ✓
- Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods ✓
- Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers ✓
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot ✓
- Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding ✓
- Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child ✗
- Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones ✓
- Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 ✓
- Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
- Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table ✓
- Ann Patchett, State of Wonder ✓
- Donald Ray Pollock, Devil All the Time ✓
- Karen Russell, Swamplandia! ✓
- Kate Zambreno, Green Girl ✓
I’ve read Open City, The Sisters Brothers, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, 1Q84, and Swamplandia!, and just finished Green Girl.
Rather than ranking them, I’ll put them into thee categories:
Great, should win
- The Sisters Brothers — a hilarious western novel. Deadwood as done by the Cohen brothers.
- 1Q84 — Murakami at his best, this time with a kick-ass female lead.
- The Art of Fielding — fantastic story (plus baseball!) that lived up to the hype.
Good, worth your time
- The Marriage Plot — I enjoyed this one a lot, but I thought it lagged in the middle.
- Open City — A very interesting reading experience. I imagine those familiar with New York City would really enjoy it since the book is basically about a guy walking around New York reflecting on his life.
- Swamplandia! — I was hoping this would be another Geek Love, and it started off really well, but I lost interest by the end of the book.
- Green Girl — I just finished this one, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. It is the story of a girl from Chicago trying to make it in London. Why she moved there and what motivated her to do the things she did (mostly debase and feel sorry for herself) were not clear enough to me, and I found it depressing and boring.
Now I'm onto The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, one of the top seeds, so I'm hopeful I'll enjoy it more. I doubt if any of the others on the list can compete with my top three, but it will be interesting to see what I think, as well as to follow the competition in March.